Cinderella Man and Me

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

December 1, 2013

The First Parish of Watertown

 

Reading    This is not a reading so much as a story about the boxer, Jim Braddock, with a short quote from a movie about his life.

Like something out of a storybook, “invincible” Max Baer lost the heavyweight championship of the world to the once seemingly washed up Jimmy Braddock on June 13th 1935. It was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. How did it all happen? What amazing series of events even got Jim Braddock a title shot? Max Baer was supposed to hold the title for years, and Jim Braddock was a faceless preliminary fighter whose biggest fight was trying for the light heavyweight title six years earlier, and losing.  And that had been his peak.

Now Braddock was twenty nine.  He had a very hard jaw and lots of grit but not much more. He was so not in demand as an opponent that he was forced to go on relief to feed his wife and three children.  His manager started using him as a show – a guy who would last a few rounds before getting knocked out by the favored boxer.  It was during the Depression, and his family was hungry, and so Braddock didn’t say no.  He was put in the ring with some heavy weights and outlasted a few, and that’s how he ended up in the ring with Max Baer.  If you are interested in boxing, there is a lot more to the story, but I am not, so I will skip that part, except to say that Baer did not want this fight.  He was younger, heavier, and taller, and concerned that he would hurt the old, washed up Braddock.  The bettors agreed with Baer – the odds were 15-1 in his favor.

But no one told Braddock.  He trained relentlessly for this battle.  For the first five rounds, he attacked Baer, who laughed, waited for him to tire himself out, and then decided to flatten the old man.  But four rounds later, Braddock was still standing.  He just would not fall.  Later Braddock said that Baer was punching  “So hard that if I had electric light bulbs in my toes, they would have lit up!”  But Braddock would not give up.  After eleven rounds, Baer did.  Braddock, much to the amazement of his cringing wife, had won.  This brief excerpt from a movie about Braddock takes place afterwards, when he knows his money troubles are over:  His wife is relieved, and his manager says:

Listen. A little bird told me to check the evening editions. Let’s see what we got.

Boxer Jim Braddock has come back from the dead to change the face of courage in our nation.

Sporty Lewis wrote that.

Get this: In a land that’s downtrodden, Braddock’s comeback is giving hope to every American.

People ready to throw in the towel are finding inspiration in their new hero.

As Damon Runyon has already written, he is truly the Cinderella Man.

Braddock’s wife, Mae, asks “Cinderella Man?” and the manager says, “Yeah, Cinderella Man.”  To which Mae replies. “I like it.  It’s kind of girly.”  And Jim Braddock, reading the article, says “Look at this!  This is me!  Cinderella Man” while in the background, his manager says “Oh brother.  This is gonna be fun.”

Sermon

It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which seems a kind of nostalgic time to me.  There is that whole sense of people as homing pigeons, with the heart set to return some place, to the nest.  I think of home and hearth, and idealized versions of such – like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Last year I spent a bit of time researching the connection between Unitarianism and children’s literature, and various aspects of what I learned found its way into sermons.  In May, I talked to a congregation in Bridgewater a bit about Louisa May Alcott, and mentioned that my own childhood plan involved growing up to be Alcott.  Then, in the receiving line I met a wonderful woman in her eighties, who said, as she stuck out her hand to shake mine “ I never wanted to be Louisa.  I wanted to be Jo!   It affected my whole life!”  Intrigued, I asked her how.  And she was quite specific.  In high school, she refused to take French.  She had to take German.  Why?  Because she needed to be like Jo, and ready to meet her own Professor Baehr.  Although her insistence on German was really a devotion to impersonating a fictional character, her determination caused the high school administrators to see her as fiercely independent. She became a person who forged her own way rather than following a path.  Because she learned German, people assumed she was a serious scholar.  Everything flowed from there.  And it really did shape her whole life.

I was still absorbing this story, turning it over in my mind and realizing that my vision of being like Louisa May Alcott was actually of being like Jo, too, when a young man shook my hand and said, “I never cared about Little Women, but I loved Little Men.  No one ever talks about Little Men, but I thought it was great.”  I agreed that no one talks about it, and said I thought maybe it was because there was no movie of it, but I realized that I have always liked Little Men and Jo’s Boys better myself.  I think often when we say “Little Women,” we are in fact referring to the whole series, to the way we remember our own childhood exposure to not just the books, but to everything they have come to represent.  I have never forgotten our Camp Fire Girls troop attending a big screening of the film – the one in which Katharine Hepburn played Jo.  It was in the high school auditorium – a foreign land to us nine year olds.  The film broke part way through, and we suffered in confusion for a while as people tried to fix it.  Then a tall, icy gray woman in a tweed suit announced that it was over and we should go home and read the book because that was better for us anyway.  I was incensed that she didn’t apologize, and I could not understand why she thought we were there.  How could she not realize that it was because we had read the book that we wanted to see the movie?! And so part of the meaning of Little Women became, for me, consciously witnessing the judgment and cluelessness of authority figures.  It was a beginning to realize that we are not necessarily known as people when we are children.  It made the book that much more precious.

For many years our Christmas pageant here featured a scene from Little Women, and every time four of our young people play the March girls, sitting around the Christmas tree and complaining about having no presents, I think of that woman who essentially scolded us for wanting to see the movie.  It makes the children that much nobler as they recount their desire for drawing pencils or sheet music and say, “It’s so dreadful to be poor.” Their highly principled parents seem to have abandoned them, and told them it was for their own good.  All this was going through my mind in the receiving line back in Bridgewater, but what I said to this man was that Alcott did not particularly like girls, and that is probably why her boy stories are more fun – but I thought maybe there was a cultural thing against talking about stories in which boys have feelings.  Boys are supposed to communicate through sports.  He said, “Yeah.  Once I tried to talk to my friend about the movie Stand By Me, and he made a face at me and told me that was wussy.”

When I am filling in at a church, greeting people afterwards is always intense.  I have these incredible conversations with people who I do not know, and who yet feel that I do know them enough that they can share fairly deeply. Everything is compressed in a way that it is not when we are in our regular environments.  It is a little bit like these holiday weekends, full of family and old stories and a weird combination of being more yourself than you are anywhere, and frustrated that you can’t make yourself understood; that everyone still sees you a way that you don’t think of as you.  I loved meeting these folks.  They had great stories to tell.  And these exchanges in the receiving line also had me wondering about myself.  Why had I thought of the author as the role model, while this older woman had thought of the character? Why had I accepted Little Women as a touchstone when the stories I really liked were set at Plumfield, the progressive school run by Jo and Professor Baehr?  So many people talk about Alcott and her role in liberating women, but what about her role in freeing men – or children?

Then another man shook my hand and said “I bet I am one of the only people left who grew up reading Horatio Alger stories.  I still remember them.  My desk had that old fashioned inkwell in it, and I was so lost in my story that when the girl in front of me tossed her hair, the end of her braid went in the ink, and she thought I did it to her until I showed her the splash she made on my page.  She knew I wouldn’t have wrecked my Alger book!”

This man did not mention Horatio Alger out of thin air.  I had talked about him in the sermon that day.  Louisa May Alcott thought that Alger’s rags-to-riches books were stupid  – that characters like newsboys and bootblacks were inappropriate for children, and that the stories were too dramatic.  People’s lives aren’t really that adventurous, she said.  This is kind of funny, if you think about it, because she was actually like one of the characters in Alger’s book — the impoverished daughter of a man who could never hold a job or finish anything he started, she had to move frequently as a child as the family boarded, borrowed, and bartered their way through life. She and her sisters had worked as children.  She went off to work as a nurse in the Civil War, almost died, wrote about the experience, became wealthy and famous, and suddenly had become very genteel, as well as judgmental.

So I left church thinking about all these stories, and about gender, especially.  Children’s literature is one of the few fields that women gained control of early on, and so it is not unusual to hear Alcott’s contempt for “formulaic” stories repeated. A certain kind of middle class, individualized and respectable fiction became the only kind of appropriate book – my grandmother repeatedly pronounced the Bobbsey twins and Nancy Drew trash, but I loved them.  These conversations in the receiving line had me thinking about the cost of promoting only one kind of story, or of saying “Little Women” when we are actually picturing boys.  I have three sons, and no daughters – it seems like the kind of thing I should have thought about.  This man in the receiving line was so sincere, saying he really enjoyed Little Men, but no one talks about that book.  Why? Horatio Alger’s name gets used as shorthand for junk, but isn’t it offering for kids the same message we claim, religiously:  Give the people hope, not threats of hell?  Alger left the Unitarian pulpit because he was gay, and in a culture where that was inadmissible, he acted out, and paid the price.  But he also redeemed himself.  He moved to New York City after the Civil War and worked with homeless boys, and started writing stories for and about them, to help them believe that circumstances could change, and that things would get better.  Yet last year, when the UU World magazine editor contacted me, asking me to write about Unitarian connections to children’s literature, she preemptively said, “But don’t touch Horatio Alger.”  It made me sad.  It’s like the Cinderella story without the happy ending; the fairy tale with all the scary, bad, lonely parts, and no magic.

It was through researching Horatio Alger that I found the term “Cinderella Man.”   It was in a scholarly article about boys and fairy tales, and it led me to the original source of the term: Damon Runyon, the reporter who invented the name for the boxer Jim Braddock, — a man too old, too poor and too pathetic to win a fight; who then went on to do just that.  It’s a story that could have easily been one of Horatio Alger’s, had he lived to see the Depression.   I had never heard of Damon Runyon until my father died fifteen years ago.  There was a good sized obituary of my dad in the Boston Globe, and one of the people quoted said he was “a character, a real Damon Runyon kind of guy.”  I had no idea what that meant.  Was he saying something nice, or making fun of him, or what?  To tell the truth, even after I read about Runyon, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be called “a real Damon Runyon kind of guy.”  But when I found this term Cinderella Man, it clicked. The good boy, neglected, cleaning up other people’s messes and believing something good will happen – but actually MAKING that good himself.  It is a plot, but it is also occasionally true – and it provides strength, and hope; the encouragement to keep trying. Stories like that help us change the narrative.  In a story, when there are insurmountable odds, we never really doubt that they will be defied. The hero will become his own man, find the path that gives him the keys to the kingdom.  If he wasn’t going to, no one would have written the story!  This is what children’s literature – and, incidentally, religion – is all about.  We can change!  Anything can happen!  The future is not determined by the past.  In fairy tales that transformation can be literal – frogs can turn into princes – but that isn’t really the point.  Wasn’t the woman who refused to take French as a child; who insisted on studying German – wasn’t her life changed because of a book?  Stories remind us not to see the world in stark, objective terms.  We do not have to be the label that others put on us.  Nothing is inevitable.  As Shel Silverstein said, “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

Anything can be.  Including this: The notoriously homophobic rapper Eminem has a song called Cinderella Man.  It’s not new – it came out seven years ago, but I stumbled upon it last year, when I was studying Horatio Alger and fairy tales for boys. Two of my sons love rap, but when I asked if they knew it, they thought I was making it up.  Eminem and Cinderella? It must be a joke. Cinderella is for girls, and rap is a decidedly guy thing, especially if you are talking about Eminem, who has a fairly unimpeachable record of misogyny, which seems only to be getting worse.  I actually like the song, which starts with  “You know, technically, I’m not even really supposed to be here right now, So , might as well make the most of it.”  In the background, others are saying Amen, and Eminem goes on to say he must be lucky, because some of us don’t get a second chance, and he isn’t gonna blow his.  “I feel like I can do anything now,” he says, before asking who can “smash an hourglass, grab the sand, take his hands and cup ‘em; spit a rhyme to freeze the clock, take the hands of time and cuff ‘em?”  Cinderella man.  The song goes on to compare his own life to Jim Braddock’s, although Braddock is never mentioned.  It is just that whole impossible story of coming back from the dead; of no one believing it was possible for you to make it.  But you do, and it saves more than just yourself.  Everyone else who felt kicked down starts to believe in his ability to stand up.  It turns out Eminem is a Universalist.  Of the kid who gets up when no one thinks he can, he wrote “That boy’s hot enough to melt Hell, burn Satan too;

He’s been fried and his ashes put back together with glue,
See you can hate ’em, he don’t blame you; frankly he would too,
But this game could ill-afford to lose him, how bout you?”

One of the consequences of trying to make all stories respectable and middle class is that we do end up with public personalities like Eminem, or like Richie Incognito – -the racist Miami Dolphin who bullied his own teammate.  Who do you identify with if everyone in the story is leading a predictable, safe, plot-driven life; if there are no gritty urban tales of disaster; no real drama for survival; no all –consuming anger at the unbelievable lack of fairness?  People died all the time in fairy tales, and they die all the time in some streets, too.  But without stories that acknowledge that, we get victims who are only allowed to triumph by becoming bullies.  The only narrative that allows an escape from victimhood is to become a star, celebrating the ability to victimize.  Most of Eminem’s work is like that.  But this song isn’t.  Instead it reminds us that men need a Cinderella story too; and that the Cinderella myth is not about rescue.  It is not a passive story of waiting for someone to take you away. The fairy tale is about escape, into a better world, where things are fair and we all have a chance, and where we are strong enough to stand up for ourselves even when others don’t see us as having value, no matter who we are.  We have to always be able to see ourselves in one another.

A funny thing happened when I was writing this sermon.  I was thinking about the young man from the congregation in Bridgewater, who talked about Stand By Me and Little Men, and I picked up the Alcott book.  Does anyone know how Little Men ends?  I hadn’t remembered.  It turns out that the last chapter is called Thanksgiving.  The Plumfield School has just concluded a six month experiment in coeducation, transforming what had been a middle class boys preparatory school into a home for a wide group of children, including an orphan and a boy who has been in serious legal trouble, along with girls from the extended March family.  Mrs. Jo and Professor Baehr preside over the whole operation, with benevolence and a bit of righteousness, as Jo points out her success to those who doubted the wisdom of her plan.  They did not think girls belonged in a real school, or that troubled boys should mix with those headed to Harvard, but Jo has proved them all wrong.  After the feast, during which every child points out his or her contribution, the holiday ends with a play performed by the children for their visiting families.  What is the play?  Cinderella, of course.

I couldn’t have planned it better.  Sometimes grace finds us.  Who we have been is not all we will be.  Life may yet hold new excitement for us all.  So may it be.

Benediction     from Louisa May Alcott, Little Men

For love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive.